"The Rainmaker" follows the classic underdog (not the cartoon, but the David Vs. Goliath-type) formula, but director Francis Ford Coppola (who also adapted the Grisham novel) and a great cast make the formula work splendidly in this film, which I think is an easy choice for the best adaptation of a John Grisham novel yet.
The 1997 film stars Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor, a young law student with a troubled past who finds himself chasing down a job with the shady Bruiser Stone (Mickey Roarke) as the film opens. Rudy is handed off to a "mentor" by the name of Deck Shiffler (Danny DeVito), who's failed the bar exam on a number of occasions and now spends his time chasing ambulances.
Rudy finds his first client in Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), a young woman who's being abused by her husband and fears for her safety. The other client is Donnie Ray Black (Johnny Whitworth), a young man dying of leukemia whose claims have been denied again and again by the insurance company. Rudy takes on the case for Donnie Ray's mother, Dot (Mary Kay Place) and when Bruiser's "law shop" gets shut down, Deck and Rudy decide to take what money they have between them to start up their own practice, with Dot and Kelly's cases being their first.
While Rudy is made a cheap offer by the insurance company and their ace lawyer Leo F. Drummond (Jon Voight, in an expertly unlikable performance), the case changes when the angry old judge passes away from a heart attack, replaced by a new judge (Danny Glover), who's perfectly agreeable to a lawsuit against a big insurance company. When Donny Ray passes away, the lawsuit becomes a wrongful death suit.
"The Rainmaker" sees Ford Coppola confidently leading a cast both young (Damon and Danes in early roles, as well as vets Devito, Voight and others) and getting equally good results across the board. Voight expertly plays the sleazy Drummond without going over-the-top. Ford Coppola's film also goes for the same approach, as the movie highlights the little moments of big discovery and small character interactions. It's a refreshing change from the Big Emotional Speeches of most courtroom dramas. Damon also manages a very convincing performance as the idealistic young attorney who manages to outsmart the insurance company's costly legal team. Danes and Damon have very nice chemistry with one another, and Devito and Damon make an excellent pair of opposites. Mary Kay Place and Mickey Rourke also offer fine supporting efforts.
"The Rainmaker" is a formula flick, but it tweaks the formula a bit, provides a brisk and involving tale, keeps things a little more grounded and real than films in this genre often do and it's easy to root against the villains. It's not one of the best of Ford Coppola's movies, of course, but that doesn't take away from the fact that the movie works splendidly.
VIDEO: "The Rainmaker" is presented by Paramount in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is a considerable improvement over the original presentation, which was in non-anamorphic widescreen and one of the studio's early DVD releases. The original release suffered from shimmering, edge enhancement, artifacting and other concerns. This new release only has to contend with some minor specks on the elements used. Sharpness and detail are noticably better here, too: the picture appears consistently crisp and clean, with a nice amount of fine detail present. Colors looked a tad subdued, but this is seemingly by intent. This was definitely an improvement upon the prior DVD edition of the film.
SOUND: "The Rainmaker" is presented by Paramount in Dolby Digital 5.1. The surrounds are - understandably - not given a whole lot to do, given the film's dialogue-driven nature. Audio quality is fine, as the presentation offers a crisp, clean presentation of Elmer Bernstein's jazzy, memorable score and clear dialogue.
EXTRAS: Writer/director Francis Ford Coppola offers up both an introduction for the film and a commentary for the movie. The commentary also includes some additional comments from actor Danny Devito scattered in throughout, as well. Ford Coppola is - once again - superb at discussing one of his films, providing an insightful discussion of the varied cast, filming in Memphis, adapting the story, production issues and more. Devito also provides some amusing stories and provides some additional analysis of working with the cast.
A series of deleted scenes is offered, which includes an alternate ending. The alternate ending is amusing, but rather ridiculous and it doesn't work as well as the theatrical ending. We also get screen tests for Danes, Damon, Place and Virginia Madsen. A 26-minute "making of" documentary from the time of production starts off a little ordinary, but then starts to improve as the documentary follows the production and watches the actors and Ford Coppola rehearsing (including some improv, one moment of which is a bit bizarre) and planning out scenes.
Final Thoughts: "The Rainmaker" is easily the best Grisham adaptation, with excellent performances, a brisk pace and a somewhat more low-key approach that's refreshing. The DVD presentation offers far better image quality than the prior release, fine audio and a nice set of extra features. Recommended.
The Film A